This story about J is going to be very different from most wine stories that wax poetic about the owner, the winemaker, or the wines. This one’s about a front liner… someone who is the face for most people when they come to wine country to learn about wine and are greeted by the hospitality department.

DIGRESSION #1: I was once told, while discussing the head of a wine company, “A fish rots from the head.” I thought about it for a second, and agreed. If the person running a company isn’t extraordinary, then you won’t find cream of the crop employees, for the most part. Why? The person doing the hiring won’t appreciate great talent, and will tend to hire those who won’t threaten or intimidate the boss; so things remain ordinary and under nervous conditions… Again, I said, for the most part. When someone good slips in, then the boss doesn’t know what to do with that talent, and that person will eventually be asked to leave.

On the other hand, when someone is self assured and knowledgeable, those being hired must exhibit extraordinary talent and passion. Someone self assured isn’t intimidated by anyone. That person welcomes what comes with being surrounded by remarkable people; so more frequently, you can expect exceptional things to be happening within that company. This story about J has reminded me of this parable more than once, but only in the most positive light for J Winery, because this is one healthy fish

DIGRESSION #2: When I fly from place to place, I sometimes talk with the person sitting next to me… Sometimes we have nothing to say to each other at all. It’s a mood thing. When I do have conversations, they’re with people who click… people who are open and have fascinating stories to tell, and we share interests… Then we part, mostly to never see each other again. On my way to Portugal in October of 2009, I met Robin Parnell. She was headed back to Newark, having just worked in San Francisco; and I was leaving San Francisco to go work in Portugal with Enoforum Wines. She began my trip, I ended hers. As we parted after the flight, I gave her my card and told her, since she comes to San Francisco regularly, “Look me up and we’ll share my wine country insider’s edge.”

A little over a year later, she took me up on my offer. She was traveling for work, but would also take the weekend to visit wine country. One of her colleagues, Heidi Foot, was also flying in from England. And… Robin had a couple of her girl friends (Sherie Woody and Natalie Daniels) come along for the weekend adventure. Robin was ready to have a ball and to also have it be a lasting memory, not only for herself, but also with some of her closest friends.

I’ve now set the stage with all of the key players of this story… One wonderful tasting room person at J Winery, and a car load of beautiful women looking for a good time, with Jose and me along for the ride.

Most winery experiences begin in the tasting room. These hospitality people are the key ambassador faces of the company. My internal contact with J began years ago when I used to create sales support material for Shelly Eichner, during her time at J. She introduced me to others in the office, whom I also came to appreciate. Now PR colleague George Rose is working there. There’s also someone else whom I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know over the years, and this person is the catalyst for how this story has evolved. His name is Ron Clark; and if you’ve met him in the tasting room, you already know what a marvelous person Ron is.

This story about our visit to J might serve as an example and inspiration for someone wanting to know how hospitality at a winery is done really well. If you’re a tasting room manager, send your employees to J to study Ron. It will be worth their time to see how it’s done by a master.

Ron said that morning, when his team was looking at who was visiting the winery that day, he saw “Jo Diaz” and said, “I’ll take this one.” My daughter Melanie was the first to introduce me to Ron, and we’ve tasted with him before. We know enough about each other that we would all appreciate the visit again, and Ron took the lead. I don’t know why I didn’t request Ron, in the first place, but know I always will from now on.

During our tasting, Ron said something that really hit a chord, when I asked him how long he’s been there. He told us 20 years. I almost gasped. (He must have also poured at that location for Piper Sonoma, because that was the company there before J. It, too, was a bubbles house, and closed shortly after we arrived in Sonoma County, to become J.)

What Ron said that hit home so hard, and I’m paraphrasing, was the following:

I love working in the tasting room. I’m happy right where I am. Most people who come here to work ask me, “Ron, how do you do it? How am I going to repeat the same thing over and over again all day long, and remain enthusiastic?” Within a short period of time they’re taken into the marketing department, or somewhere else in the company, or they leave. I’m staying right here. I not only love talking about the wines, but I also love meeting the people, finding out who they are, where they come from… what their stories are, getting to know them.”

Is he responsible for selling a boatload of wine? Well, he did to all of my new BFFs… as much as they could possibly and legally ship into New Jersey. Yes, Ron told us every aspect about the sparkling winemaking process. He didn’t skip a beat. But, you’d never know that he had told that story for the last 20 years, based on his delightful enthusiasm and his engaging manner. We laughed, played, and learned our way through the tasting. I took copious notes, hung on every word… Learned some new things, and pointed out some of my own that Ron could use down the line, too, as a wine educator… Like adding to his explanation of malolactic fermentation, which is as easy as A + B = C.

A + B = C (malic Acid + Bacteria = laCtic acid, like the one in Cream. (Ron liked this one.)

I left Robert Mondavi Winery, not for the people, whom I adored as colleagues and visitors. I left because I felt like I was performing what was equivalent to Lily Tomlin’s Broadway production, Searching for Signs of Intelligent Life. I had seen it performed, so I knew how helter-skelter it was, and I felt that way as an educator at Mondavi… going from one place to the next around the winery, three to four times a day, saying the same thing over-and-over again. It’s a rare talent for someone who can do this like it’s the first time, a thousand times over.

I personally went to a winery to get into their PR department. For Ron, he is the PR department, as far as it concerns consumers who are walking through J’s doors… perhaps for the first time, perhaps for the third or fourth based on their past positive experiences with Ron (and others within the company).

All I know is that when I walked away from J this time, it was time to focus that spotlight on an unsung hero. Ron Clark wins my hospitality Man-0f-the Year award… And, he certainly won over the hearts of my new friends, too. When you’re in J’s tasting room, if you’re not being educated by Ron, you’ll know who is based on the great time everyone is having… the laughter, the bubbles, the chatter…

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